BNF: Concept and Product Design for The Royal Pharmaceutical Society

Imagine comprehensive drug information in the palm of a doctor’s hand

Pharmaceutical Press asked Modern Human to reimagine the BNF product family with a focus on integrating digital and print products. Modern Human’s design research and product concepts led to a suite of user-centred medical information products.

Unless you are a medical professional, you may not have heard of the British National Formulary (BNF), but for doctors, nurses, pharmacists and paramedics it provides all of the information needed to safely prescribe medicines to patients. It is the authoritative and comprehensive catalogue of details about all the medicines that are currently available on the National Health Service, including indications, contraindications, side effects, doses, legal classifications and prices.

First published in 1949, it is rumoured that the BNF was originally designed to fit in the pocket of a doctor’s white coat. These days you are more likely to see a doctor carrying an iPad than wearing a white coat, so Pharmaceutical Press approached Modern Human about reimagining this vital medical resource. They specifically wanted us to focus on building a family of integrated digital and print products that would provide authoritative and clear access to drug information.

“We had to almost start from scratch to create a new structure that accounts for all of the new uses and new angles on therapy that have emerged since the early 1980s, which can be rigorously applied across the whole product suite. That has allowed us to build much better digital products.”

Karen Baxter, BNF Director

Before creating a concept, we wanted to understand more about how, when and why medical professionals use the BNF. We immersed ourselves in the worlds of doctors, nurses and pharmacists, to find out more about how they work and their needs for drug information. We shadowed doctors as they went about their ward rounds. We observed nurses as they administered drugs. We watched pharmacists checking and dispensing prescriptions in busy hospital pharmacies. We went on home visits with GPs. We observed nurses attending to patients in the treatment room.

Our design research gave us an unprecedented understanding of the working lives of healthcare professionals. Observing their behaviour and witnessing their workflows enabled us to understand their goals, identify their latent needs, and discover what was most important to them about the BNF. Our research made it abundantly clear that future products had to provide intuitive and fast access to clear information. Mistakes could cause serious harm.

We started with a concept for a digital product: an intuitive app that would place critical drug information in the palm of every medical professional’s hand. The app could be used during clinical interactions with patients, and would allow doctors, nurses and pharmacists quick access to the information they needed. We deliberately retained some of the most successful elements of the print experience, while also taking advantage of the opportunities available in a digital medium. We imagined a super-fast search, and an intuitive interface. We invented an interaction checker that would help medical professionals ensure the safety of their patients by quickly checking for possible drug interactions. By moving the information into a digital medium, we could ensure that it was kept up-to-date with regular content updates.

We set about refreshing the print publications at the same time. Our design research had given us a deep insight into the things that medical professionals really valued about the BNF. We had observed them stroking the large edition number on the cover, and knew that the colour of each book reassured them that they were using the latest possible drug information. We looked back at the history of the BNF and took inspiration from the original 1949 design, but introduced a new, vibrant colour palette. We utilised the award winning sans serif FF Dagny because of its presence, modern aesthetic, legibility and range of weights. The combination of bright new colour palette and modern typeface created a cover that looked towards the future, while still honouring the history of the publication. We also moved from the bespoke size, originally designed to fit in a doctor’s coat pocket, to a standard A5 size. The standard size better fits alongside other books on a bookshelf, and will also reduce future printing costs.

The BNF product family includes the sister publications, the British National Formulary for Children (BNFC) and Nurse Practitioner’s Formulary (NPF). The NPF is a much thinner publication than the BNF, so there was no danger of confusing the two. The BNFC, on the other hand, is similar in thickness to the BNF. We utilised the secondary colours from our new colour palette and designed a distinctive cover and spine layout, to ensure the BNFC could be easily differentiated at a glance.

We deliberately took a minimalist approach when applying the brand to the new digital products. We wanted to create the sense of a product family, but we didn’t want to lose sight of the key purpose of the digital products: to facilitate fast, intuitive access to vital information. We made the decision to apply the standard interaction patterns of the respective platforms, in order to maximise usability and minimise the learning curve.

“It’s been clear to us when testing the products that people pick these new products up, intuitively know how to use them and quickly get a grasp of how the content is organised”

Karen Baxter, BNF Director

Modern Human imagined new, digital BNF products and reimagined the well established print publications. We created an overarching product identity that creates a clear relationship between products. Our work also enabled a radical shift in the publishing process, and will enable Pharmaceutical Press to publish a single set of content to multiple platforms.

BNF70 will be published in the autumn of 2015, and will be the first edition to bear the new design.